In 1923 Herman (Hank) Williams was born to Elonzo and Lily Williams in that dusty, barren part of south Alabama where, to use the vernacular, "there just ain't nothing." Nothing but a few rich families and a whole lot of land and a few other people almost too poor and too ignorant to farm it.
At least that is the way it was in 1923, and the Williamses were the poorest of the poor. The economic and cultural deprivations of the family were further exacerbated by Elonzo Williams' alcoholism and by the malingering that he sometimes blamed on his stint in World War I. But after after separating from her husband, Lilly Williams was able to make a living for herself and her two children by managing boarding houses in the progressively larger towns to which they moved every few years. Finally, when Hank was in high school, they settled for good in the capital city, Montgomery, from which he launched his fledgling singing career in the late 1930s and to which he was returned to be buried after a more or less self-inflicted death on New Year's Day 1953.
In 10 spectacular years Hank Williams, who never graduated from high school or read anything other than comic books, rose from nowhere to become the "King of Country Music" and to write and record a group of songs that by blending the influences of country, pop and blues inspired of sound that has dominated popular music in America ever since. Unfortunately those same years saw an emotional and physical deterioration just as rapid and just as dramatic as the professional success had been. Between 1948 and 1953 Hank Williams moved from Montgomery to Shreveport to Nashville, toured the world as a performer, made and spent millions of dollars, was married, twice to and twice divorced from the same woman, had one son, became handicapped from a spinal deformity and terminally addicted to alcohol and drugs.
The story of such a life is the stuff of legends, and the Hank Williams legend has been told many times since his death, most recently in this new account by Rolling Stone editor Chet Flippo. In his introduction to "Your Cheatin' Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams," Flippo writes that his book, despite its title, is not intended to be a critical biography but rather "the story of the Hank Williams who made the music."
Although Flippo is a good descriptive reporter, as anyone who reads either Rolling Stone or the descriptions of Southern life and landscape in this book can testify, he is no storyteller. Here we get only the stiffest cliches for dialogue and sweeping generalizations in the place of dramatization. Flippo tells us repeatedly that Hank Williams was dominated by women, that he was a loner unable to be close to anyone, that he drank because he was in physical pain, that people used him after he became famous, and that he had an unappetizing penchant for guns and very young girls. But he seldom substantiates such assertions with dramatic action and offers no new insights into Williams' obsessive and deeply scarred relationships with the important people in his life -- his mother, his wife, Audrey, his son, and his Nashville mentor, Fred Rose.
A story this rich with reverberations of the great American rags-to-riches dream and the terrible human conflict between love and art is always worth creating afresh. Unfortunately there is nothing new in Flippo's rendering. So if you really want to know more about Hank Williams and a life lived passionately but tragically, you have several choices: First, you can read Roger M. Williams' sound and balanced 1970 biography, "Sing a Sad Song" -- or Jay Caress' more recent "Hank Williams: Country Music's Tragic King" (1970); second, you can wait for someone to give us a perceptive new interpretation of the Hank Williams life and legend; third, you can sock in some night with the beer and the Kleenex, and once more weep your way through a repertoire that includes, "I Can't Help It if I'm Still in Love With You," Long Gone Lonesome Blues," Cold, Cold Heart," Your Cheatin' Heart," I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," I Saw the Light," Lonesome Whistle," "A Mansion on the Hill" and "You Win Again."